Finally I read through Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s epic work, Padmavati. Written in 1540′ Padmavati predates Tulsidas’s Ramayana by about 40 years. Both are experiments in Awadhi poetry and represents milestones in writing in the vernacular. Like Tulsidas   decades after him, Jaisi too trained in Sanskrit, studying the language from the best of Pandits in Benaras. The purpose behind studying Sanskrit was to get the rhythm and the tone of the language so that the poetry written in Awadhi could have similar grandeur of the metaphor. But there was yet another similarity behind both the poet’s purpose and that was to imagine a Purushottam. For Tulsi it was Rama but for Jaisi it was Rana Rattan, the man who was infatuated by and eventually took Padmini as his second wife, he being already married to one Nagmati. Padmini was exquisitely beautiful, Padmini being a generic name for a particular kind of woman. The other types are heerni, Hastini, hansini, mrinalini and so on. Padmini is supposed to be the most beautiful form of women. Most probably, Padmavati was the name of this Padmini’s name. Her father was a ruler in Sinhala by the name of Gandharvasena, one who would invoke the jealousy of the mighty Ravana. By the time Gandharvasena ruled Ravana was dead but Vibhishana was alive and the Rakshasas seemed to be rather envious of him. In fact when Ratansena was carrying Padmini across the seas, Lakshmi, the Goddess instate of Lanka conjured up a vile storm that nearly fatally rocked their boat.

Padmavati’s beauty in a large measure drew from the beauty and the bounty of the land she was born into, namely Sinhala. Sinhala was not only high economy but it was high culture as well. Sinhala therefore constituted perhaps the dreams of the Rajasthani, a dream which they partially fulfilled by providing generous employment to the cultured Bengalis. Bengalis were employed in the royal courts as purohits, Pandits, generals, accountants and ministers. Indeed, Swami Vivekananda too was sponsored by the royal family of Kota, his costume too being designed in Rajasthan! The search for wealth and opportunities brought the Marwaris into Bengal as early as the 16th century. So, for the Rajasthanis it seems that Sinhala was their El Dorado.

Rana Ratan, or Ratansena gets to know of Padmavati through Hiraman. Hiraman is Padmavati’s parrot who escapes her custody and falls into a series of misadventures but eventually finds a place in the royal palace of Chittor, a colloquial name for Chitradurga, or the painted fort. Hiraman plays politics when he openly praises Padmavati to the queen, Nagmati. Nagmati in a fit of jealousy asks Ratansena to get rid of Hiraman but unfortunately he falls deeply in love with this magical woman who he can only dream of. Ratansena beset by his love for Padmavati renounces his kingdom and becomes a yogi. With an army of thousand yogis sets forth for Sinhala and on reaching Gandharvasena’s fort camps outside its walls for days. Padmavati hears of the infatuation and falls deeply in love with Ratansena. However, once Ratansena gets the impression that Padmavati may accept him as her lover, he with his yogi compatriots scale the walls of the fort and enters the campus. He is arrested and is about to be impaled. It is upon his gallows that Padmini sees Ratansena for the first time and she signs in the pardon for him. Gandharvasena is bound to release the yogi and give his daughter away to him as a bride. Padmavati comes away to Chittor with her large retenu of female companions and reunites with Hiraman. This is about two thirds the story.

In the palace Padmavati must encounter Nagmati through ugly scenes of quarrels and fights revealing her not a woman of grace but of one who is haughty and intolerant of incumbent queens. Smart people are often rude and hurtful, so was she. Ratansena was nonetheless clear that Nagmati would remain the principal queen while Padmavati remained his love. He would therefore spend nights with Nagmati. This did not faze Padmavati who seemed to be getting used to the ways of the palace. There are indications that Padmavati remained a virgin, the King being too enamoured to even attempt to touch her. The king’s infatuation is not lust but pure wonderment of beauty and a complete surrender to her, as if she were a Deity.

Only towards the end comes in the Sultan. Jaisi does not mention who that Sultan was except that he was a Muslim conqueror in India. Like Ratansena he too camped outside Chittor with the view of seeing Padmavati. But Ratansena went like a yogi, the Sultan came like a marauder. Ratan wanted to give up his life as a tribute to the lady, the Sultan came to pare down the fort and take her as a captor. Padmavati saw Ratan as he was about to be burnt at stake, but the fact that the Sultan caught a glimpse of her through the mirror was enough for Fate to condemn her to be burnt alive on the pyre. Ratan scaled the walls to surrender to Padmavati, the Sultan broke down the walls to subjugate her to him. Jaisi brings in the Sultanas a contrast to Ratansena, to reveal to us the low lines of lust and the nobility of love. Till such a point no one faults Jaisi with his bias against Muslims but when he starts describing the elaborate feast that Ratan makes for the Sultan and his cohorts which is a grand spread of meats of all kinds of animals who weep tears of blood and look stunned at the people who loved them and raised them and now want to kill them for flesh, the poet brings about non vegetarianism as cruelty against the world and raises it to the overall metaphor for killing, something that the Sultan has come to do. Lust for Padmavati is merely an extension of his lust for eating animal flesh. Jaisi contrasts the ethos of the Hindus against the ethos of the Muslims saying that the Muslim conquerors have torn asunder the dharma of the grand land of beauty and love only to replace it with greed and lust.

While Jaisi eagerly stereotypes the Muslim as an invader, unauthorized and illegitimate entrant into India, he refrains from ennobling all Hindus. The two characters namely Raghav Chetan, the court poet and Depaval the ruler of a neighbouring constituency are the ones who create trouble for Chittor out of spite and of envy. Raghav Chetan has lusted for Padmini and as he is ousted from Ratan’s kingdom he promptly goes over to the Sultan and provokes him to Chittor. Depaval is jealous of Ratan for the great surrender for love that he is capable of and the great reward he has got from Padmavati because of such a surrender attacks Chittor mercilessly when Ratan’s soldiers are away fighting the Sultan. On Ratan’s death Padmini alights the fire.

Jaisi took the tale of Padmavati from a local Rajasthani folk lore. A poet Hem Kanta has written on Padmini as well where Padmini is very much a queen, almost ascending to the position of the chief queen. Prabhavati and not Nagmati is the incumbent queen and while they avoid each other, Padmini assumes the role of the chief queen. There is a problem of the stepson who might well be the guy to have incited Depaval against an errant father. Hem Kanta’s Padmini was born in Poogal in the kingdom of Bikaner. The Sultan now bears the persona of Alauddin Khiljee who attacks Chittor to snatch Padmini. Rattan and Padmini discuss Khiljee and are very careful to say that what he reveals are characteristics of a vicious marauder and neither of a King nor of a Muslim. Khiljee is no longer a Muslim stereotype, he is the stereotype of a ruler who follows no dharma.

Jaisi’s tale is tragic and fatalistic, Rattan is a tragic hero because he is beaten despite the nobility of his soul; he is a target of jealousy and envy. But he is also the Purushottam because infatuation for him is not lust, nor greed, nor the desire to possess but it invokes in him the supreme sacrifice of his life, death and martyrdom. Padmini reciprocates with her own death, death and death complete the circle of love. Nagmati, Depaval and Raghav Chetan stand out as surpluses, having no redemption for they have envied and thus literally have no liberation. Alauddin lives on as the grand reality principle of history, for there is no denial that the Khiljees did indeed rule in such a despicable way.

Jaisi’s poetry has all the structural properties of becoming universal and eternal. Padmavati and Ratansena complement each other, one offering to be impaled and the other immolating herself for him. Nagmati and Padmavati are opposed to each other and so are Rattan and Sultan. Hiraman the parrot which brings Padmini to Ratan by narrating tales of Padmini to the king and Raghav Chetan, the court poet who separates the lovers by exciting the Sultan with Padmini’s stories, constitute a pair. Depaval kills Ratansena and Nagmati wants to see Padmavati dead, are a pair. Hindus and Muslims are a pair, so are kings and yogis. The story thus acquires a symmetry and because of this symmetry the story can balance on its own, away from the politics of its times, away from the narrowness of its own events, into a realm of transcendence where we only remember the sublime beauty of Padmavati and the intense love of Ratansena for her. This is Jaisi’s story, much different from Hem Kanta’s tale of kings and queens, battles between the Rajputs and the Muslims and Padmini as a part of the politics of war and annexations.












































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Gayatri Mantra

My uncle has sent me a video in which an Indonesian singer tries to make a song out of the Gayatri Mantra. She sings perched upon a rock on the sea shore which gets constantly awashed by the waves lashing on it only to be smashed and rendered into a loose mass of foam. The sun is just about to rise amidst a network of cumulo cirrus clouds against a jade blue sky and the earth looks both beautiful and bountiful. This, is the premise of the Gayatri Mantra. The reciter is enchanted with the earth and she heaps upon it her lavish praise but conscious that the Sun, an even more powerful force might be envious of her compliments to the earth hastens to “also add” the Sun. Tat Savitu, she says, meaning, yes you too, dear Sun. On hindsight she recalls that the earth and the Sun are parts of a much larger cosmos and hence the cosmos must be appeased as the senior. So she adds, all the Deities of Bhrigu, meaning the astral Deities of the Zodiac who are supposed to create a field of force for the earth and the Sun to exist. Then she says that we must remember the entire system, the beautiful earth upon which we live, the Sun that has made that life possible and the zodiac that has made it possible for us to hold the Sun as well as the earth. The Gayatri thus expands the consciousness of the holistic constitutiveness of our lives, or of Life as a whole, pointing out to it being subject to a number of contingencies.

I was never much into the Gayatri Mantra as something that renders power to the chanter. I also had great difficulty in learning the mantra because it is not in Sanskrit but in a strange Vedic tongue and hence does not have the aesthetics of the Sanskrit metre. But looking at the video I suddenly was awakened to the level that the Vedic mind wished to reach, and which is to the final and the uttermost limits of the constitutiveness of human existence. I think that this separates the Indian thought from those of any other in the world. While the ancient literature has sought a valiant hero in Gilgamesh, who, though bound by promises to his people and by the idea of sin that lay in the unbridled exercise of passions and will, the Indian thought always seeks the outermost boundaries of human lives, which depend not so much on individual heroism but on the various factors of the physical world that renders heroic ventures possible. The Vedic people were not only modest but far more pragmatic so as not to imagine that everything that works in favour of humans are exclusively her own doing.


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Amitabh at 75 years

On his landmark birthday of three fourth way towards a century, Amitabh Bachchan retains the romance of the star he once rose to be some four decades ago. He is active in films, in the entertainment business, on social media, in public opinion and what is of greater significance, in gossips circulating around celebrities. It seems, as if that the writers are exhausted of ideas to write good scripts for him, but Amitabh’s image is still eager to grow and evolve into a finality that eludes our imagination. If we have the likes of Salim Javed once again in the present times, Amitabh can still rise into the iconic megastar all over again, crushing all the stars of our times. He has a strange presence; it is literally when he stands no one can be seen in his glare. In the early days of Amitabh’s stardom we used to discuss how politics of his time brought him in but our question today will be, if the age that held him has passed into history, what makes him still a star?

I “met” Amitabh forty years ago while watching Sholay after it already had run over two years. After that I quickly watched Amar Akbar Anthony. I watched Zanjeer and Deewar much later in reruns. But in my first encounter of him in Sholay, a film that cannot really be said to belong to Amitabh specifically, there was something about him for which I decided that in my life henceforth, I will be Amitabh Bachchan. I grew studious, dead serious, somewhat melancholic, but focused and decided to win at everything I do. I became a perfectionist, hardworking, confident, defiant and also arrogant. I used to imagine Amitabh Bachchan as bearing all of the above attributes and hence worked myself up to be all of these. Slowly, I discovered that the image of the star also was attached to his parents, dutiful towards his children and I too, taught myself to be mindful of my own parents. When I watched Deewar, I became intensely political; interestingly, I developed a socialist, egalitarian, anti-rich political affiliation with strong ideas about social justice. I trained myself to become fearless and soon had a hostile body language that helped me hold out against potential eve teasers.

Then came Amitabh’s first downfall as he, charged with graft, resigned from politics. I became aware of the sociology of public opinion and since I was about to write my MPhil examinations in JNU, I decided to work on the public condemnation of Amitabh Bachchan. My thesis was called the Social Construction of a Hero, The Images By Amitabh Bachchan. In the dissertation I discussed how the star image of Amitabh Bachchan made the public construct him as a man who could corrupt the politicians. I started working at the end of the career as an MPhil student and soon I used Amitabh’s formula of hitting back at critics with a slew of comeback films, renewed contacts with the media and creating noise around his own victimization as the apt formula which I could use against harassment at my workplace. I started feeling invincible in the sense that if I do not accept defeat, no one can rile me in. I learnt how to rise up against hostilities. My MPhil dissertation expanded into a PhD thesis in which I concentrated on how Amitabh Bachchan was a philosophy of overcoming of obstacles and of evolving into a higher level of achievements.

Slowly I grew older and more settled in my employment and made a name for myself in my career. I now own my own apartment and drive my own car; my days as a street fighter seems to be over. I also have now other people to admire, I no longer watch popular films, and I have expanded my readings far beyond political thoughts into reading more of history and anthropology. I no longer need to be Amitabh Bachchan and Amitabh, truly seems to have brought me as far as he could and now my journey with him seems to be over. When I look back on the star with distance and detachment and again ask myself the same question, what makes Amitabh into the star that he is, I think that I get two possible explanations.

One is undoubtedly his family background, not of political connections for these no longer work for him, but of education. The advantage of having a poet father and a mother who used to be college teacher before her marriage, the privilege of forever having poets and novelists as guests, the atmosphere of English classical literature, Shakespeare’s plays and the poetry of Yeats gives Amitabh a rare education, perhaps unparalleled by any among his peers. People often miss this very important asset of Amitabh Bachchan when they count his money and mark his wealth.

The other explanation is a sense of restrain. In the height of success or the depths of failure, from earning a crore per hour of work to being penniless with his home on mortgage, Amitabh seems to have neither been overboard with joy nor sink into a doomed despair. Money does not embolden him, penury does not unsettle him. When in bad times, he thinks of emerging out and when in good times, he dreams of further perfection. In his restrain lies both a sense of self command and self-awareness. I think that the above two explanations are somewhat related; only a very fine education can lead to a heightened awareness of the self, which is plainly what Amitabh Bachchan inheres; every other attribute of action and anger, of renewal and retribution, of victory and justice only build upon the strong edifice of self-awareness. If I am to become Amitabh again, I think that I need to raise my self-awareness and not my voice.

With his roles in the Last Lear and Kahaani, Amitabh is no more a stranger to Tagore and hence we can wish him through Tagore’s birthday song, He Nutan, Dekha Dao Baar Baar, Jonmero Prothomo Shubhakshan, or translated as Let me be renewed every moment with the renewal of that first auspicious moment of my birth, or O Divine, let me be born again and again, every moment being the auspicious moment of my birth.


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Bijoya Dashami versus Dussehra

On the day of the Bisorjon I get loads of happy Dussehra greetings. Bisorjon is a sad time and the Bijoya Sammilani a way of huddling together with friends and family to celebrate the aftermath of an exhausting festivity. The Dussehra greetings seem so out of place and useless then. Here we have this enormous Goddess created through myths and imaginations of the mind and there we have the pithy guy called Ram who is trying hopelessly to be God. The epics were most probably compiled out of a collection of folk tales during the Guptas in the 4 CE but these were revived and rewritten copiously from the 11th century onwards and by the 17th centuries we have thousands of versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata coming from all over the Indian subcontinent and in the various vernacular languages which grew threw such rewritings of the epics.

Interestingly the period of resuscitation of the epics corresponds to the age of the Muslim conquests which sometimes could establish political power as in Delhi but for most of the times were a nuisance as in Bengal, indulging in the purest form of goondaism so amply cited in the biographies around Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Muslim Bengal never really constituted a political or an economic power for these remained with the local Rajas and the zamindars but yes, they did assume some form of central authority on the might of violence by which they claimed swathes of lands rampaged by their hooligans as being subjected to Islam. To stand up against the Muslim rule that often forced conversions rose Hinduism to revive itself. The Gita may have been the first attempt at bringing Hinduism at par with Islam for here was the Book for the Hindus spoken by a God in first person claiming that the human surrender to Him unconditionally and unquestioningly just as in the Abrahamic texts. The Ramayana also was an epic around a singular and a unique hero who stood for everything that was noble and heroic and therefore extremely susceptible to becoming God.

Ram worship which used to be mostly in the form of a Ramlila, a dramatic performance that became an occasion for discussing public values and morals of kings and heroes and such narratives had the most wonderful effect of placing the Dharma of Kings against the emergent British power, especially as we know that there was a strain on the economy leading to suffering of the common people. The Durga Puja was not a protest but an ostentation, by the local Rajas, many among who, if we are to go by the Raychowdhuries and the Daws, the Malliks and the Dorjipara actually did very well during the British rule. Ramlila’s flavour is vernacular while that of Durgapuja is Renascent, it is intrinsically universal, victorious and regal. Ramlila is of subjects, Durgapuja is by sovereign kings. This is why in the days of the Rightwing politics, the vernacular culture, defeated by modernity seeks Ram, the sovereign Bengali culture, redeemed by modernity seeks Durga.

Durga has a Puranic entity in which she is a demon slayer, and what a slayer she is for she kills that demon that no male God can kill. As the chants of the Mahalaya begins we hear how the various celestial celebrities give their weapons to her, to me it always seems that they are giving up their weapons to her. Durga collects these arms and then she slays Mahishasur, the great guy from Mysore, the great devotee of Lord Shiva, her husband. We don’t know what wrong the Mysore guy commits but he needs to be slain for he threatens to challenge the fair skinned Gods. Durga is a capable woman, for she has shown enough might in her abilities to suffer, she abounds in self-confidence, being the daughter of the richest King on earth and she is willful for she goes against every well-wisher of hers to marry this much older drug addict and alcoholic, Shiva who does not even have a proper roof over his head. Durga is invincible also because of her love for Shiva, her affections for her children, her tolerance of Brahma and Bishnu both of who are her sons in law. So she is the ultimate sovereign, no one is more powerful than her. Hence she is invoked to undo this Mysore man and in the process undo the boons of none other than her beloved husband. Shiva has never asserted himself against her except the time when he tried to fool around with Ganesha and according to some versions even behead the little boy. Durga was so angry that not only had Shiva to restore the child to life but also give him the pride of place as Ganesha must be invoked before we invoke any Deity of Hinduism. Whatever be the conditions of his birth, Ganesha does not have Shiva’s sperms and represents the ultimate power of Durga to have a child without sex. Interestingly, those who follow the lunar calendar say that Mother Mary was born on Mahalaya day, so strange because Durga as the warrior Goddess was too born on that day, both being virgin mothers.

Durga in Bengal is worshipped only as a community God and not as a personal God. There is no everyday worship of her precisely because she is simply does not live in the abode of her devotees. On the days of her worship, Bengalis welcome her as the daughter who has come home. She is a victorious daughter, a powerful Being, contented in her moorings in Kailash and looks so happy. But Bengalis cannot get over the fact that this Princess of all Princess, the pampered daughter of the King of all Kings must vacate her material comforts to live in the harshness of the mountains. So when she comes with her children Bengalis go overboard trying to compensate her ascetic existence with the bounties of the world, food, clothes, ornaments, music, dance, gaiety and others. Durgapuja is Bengal’s greatest cultural show on earth. Ramlila is a stage performance, no more than that.

Durgapuja is a unity, an accumulation, a consolidation and an aggregation. It sucks in zillion entities within it. Some local boys have formed a music band, play it for the Pujos, the poet has composed some poetry, publish it for the pujos. Those who squirm at the resplendent pandals saying that this is waste of money are not economists for they do not see the millions of homes sustained through the Durga Puja economy. The money for the outrageous show comes out of donations, small enough so as not to hurt one’s pockets too much, mostly collecting advertisement budgets of corporate houses, the pandals snatches away from budgets of the media houses. The proportion of money spent individually is too small but when aggregated for Durga becomes huge.

Immersion is crucial to Durga. It creates space for fresh spending again next year and so we say Ashchhe Bochhor Abar Hobe. The worship of earthen idols and their immersion is not intrinsic to Hindu worship. The Jagannath undergoes a renewal of its wooden body in nabakalebar. But the earthen idol, the Pandal and the immersion have been crucial to making a pujo into a community affair, a vehicle for the circulation of wealth. The Ramlila simply has no comparison to this grandiose of the Durga Puja made possible through a massive circulation of wealth. The Bisorjon is an ending just as the Mahalaya is a beginning. For the Bengalis it is the Durga Puja that marks the beginning and the end of time, we live from Pujo to Pujo.

The Ramlila is not a Time marker, it is a seasonal affair and though some scholars have tried to trace a whole lot of livelihood and community ties of obligations around the Ramayana, they have not been able to establish it in the same vein as the Durga Puja.

But let us never imagine that the Durga Puja is the tradition of Bengal for just step outside the city or beyond the high walls of the erstwhile zamindars all we see is a sleepy village that wakes up not until much later with the Nabanna and the Raas and then there is the worship of the harvest, the paddy, the fields and the foods. Gods and their idols are aggregated symbols that we actually super imposed on traditions and may not be traditions of Bengal. The idol is an aggregator, brought into worship when we want to collect the forces of the community and not necessarily keep playing through tradition in order to reproduce the community over and over again. This is why the idol worship invokes so much of innovative ness.

The Ramlila is a theatre group, a rock band whose relationship to the community is like any other performance group, to entertain through a product. It is neither nor can ever be as participative as the Durga Puja where the life of the Goddesses, her pains and her achievements, her sufferings and her victories, her well being and hardships, her joys and resentments are acutely felt in every Bengali’s body and soul for she who is so dear to us must suffer so on account of a marriage we were so helpless to prevent. This is why when she goes away all she does is to give us pain by making our homes empty all over again. This emptiness makes us calm emptying us of our energies for quite some time to come, carrying us calmly through the rest of Autumn and the winter and not before the spring comes again with the Noboborsho really that we are over with our sense of missing the daughter. Ramlila ends by arousing our ego and our violence, it gives us the smugness of having killed a guy by maiming him first and then by blowing him up. The violence and its celebrations jar the solemness of Bijoya Dashami. If there is something that indeed can calm us and get the evil out of us, it is the Bijoya Dashami and not the Ramlila, for the effect of the latter is quite the opposite of calmness. Rest of India, if they are seriously looking to overcome the evil must come into the Bisorjon, the dead calm of the water that carries our darling daughter away from us again and again. But for this, the rest of India must love their daughters as much as the Bengalis love ours.















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Amitabh @ Prateeksha

It was exactly on the 20th of December 1990 that I got an invitation from Amitabh Bachchan to be his house guest at Prateeksha in Mumbai. The invitation came through a call from Mumbai, then still Bombay in my landlord’s telephone because I as yet did not have my own connection. It seems that he called earlier in the day while I was at office, wanted to know when I would be available “directly” to take his call and there I was at 10 minutes past 6 pm to talk to him. I told him that trains were full in the last week of December and that I might like to postpone my visit until later into the New Year but he said that he was to visit South Africa and then again get very busy so here he was in a lean period when breaks were manageable. He would send me plane tickets both ways, the return being an open ticket and I was not to worry because I would be very well taken care of at his house by his family and him. But the nights, I said I would want to be in my office guest house, fairly close to his house in Juhu because I was not too comfortable living in with families which included even my own relatives. I was duly booked for the nights at the airport Hotel, fully paid for by Amitabh Bachchan. The reason for the invitation was that I had posted him, albeit rather late, copies of my MPhil dissertation from JNU titled the Social Construction of a Hero –Images By Amitabh Bachchan. The stuff I wrote, he said were exactly presented just in the way he thought of himself in his mind. How could I ever know his mind so well was the curiosity he wished to satiate through my visit to his home.

When this happened I was 29 years old and from the age of 17 I was a fan of Amitabh Bachchan having seen him for the first time on screen in Sholay and Sholay was not even exclusively his film. I, being born and bred in a renascent Bengali family, supposed to know nothing beyond Tagore suddenly became enamoured by a guy playing a pedestrian role in a multistarrer apparently violent. Thereafter, I tracked Amitabh through both the new releases as well as the rereleases of older movies. I decided that I was Amitabh Bachchan, in my mind every separation between his entity and mine was to vanish. I had to think with his thoughts, move with his body language and work through my everyday life as if, within my own precincts I was he. I was not romantically nor erotically attracted to him; my attraction towards him was philosophical. In my mind I already was speaking to him all the time and when I finally blurted all that out in my academic work, I, had attained silence because dialogue ceases in complete agreement. So, frankly, I no longer needed to meet Amitabh. But I would get a chance to see Jaya Bhaduri, and to see her became my overriding interest in visiting Prateeksha.

Amitabh sent over the tickets to me through his establishment in Delhi and his car and driver picked me up in the wee hours of the morning to drop me at the airport for the flight to Mumbai. I was more worried about a packet of soft notun gur sweets not being squashed on flight that I was carrying for the Bachchan family purchased from Annapurna in front of their Delhi bungalow, Sopan. Then finally as the day broke and life picked up in the streets in Mumbai that his car drove me into Prateeksha. Amitabh was the first person to greet me in the house. He was getting very distracted by a light sweater that I was wearing from Delhi because though Delhi was freezing, Mumbai was hot. He constantly worried that should the sun become brighter I would sweat. He then took the journalist who was interviewing him and me into the wooden shed at the corner of his garden because here he could run the airconditioning. He was more enthusiastic talking about my work to the journalist than about discussing his.

It was close to lunch that I met the family in full force which included Ajitabh who had come down from London. I soon realized as we sat down to dine in the finest silver crockery and over a twelve course meal, that it was not Amitabh Bachchan, but I who was the star. Eyes were looking at me admiringly and with awe, there were furtive glances from the staff trying to see what kind of a star I was so as to merit such an honour. I inferred that so far no guest has been so much honoured at Prateeksha as I was. Perhaps the reason was that I was an academic and so was Harivanshrai Bachchan. Teji, Amitabh’s mother told me that Harivanshrai had read my work and then my bibliography and said to her that so many books, even he had not read. I was being admired for my academic achievement.

In my observations and through my analyses of Amitabh Bachchan, he, his family, his home, the way it was organized, the décor, and his daily routine was very familiar to me. It was as if I knew them as closely as I knew my own family. But it was interesting that they too found me familiar to them as well. I think that they knew my “type”, intelligentsia, city bred urban middle class educated in premier institutions with excellent schooling and that made my “type” much more familiar to the family than the film world of Mumbai could ever be.

Yes, food was resplendent and overflowing, Amitabh was perceptive to my addiction to pickles and insisted that the pickle should always be set before me for all meals. Jaya was torn between being a good host and just chatting with me finding in me a fellow Bengali who remembered her glorious films and her famous Bengali directors. But the memory that I would cherish were the philosophical discussions with Amitabh and Jaya over the nature of self, manifestations of ego, anger, morality, the law and justice, democracy and ethics, stardom and cinema, poetry and epic, spectacle and extravaganza, violence and obscenity, right wing politics and liberalism, vendetta of the media and the emancipatory power of popular culture, of Hussain and Ganesh Pyne, of eyes and laughter, of image and appeal, most of these I have captured in my forthcoming book of sixty philosophical essays around the image of Amitabh Bachchan.



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Doyen of Kallol _Premendra Mitra

Premendra Mitra


Premendranath Mitra is a popular novelist, poet, film script writer and director and is considered as a doyen, among others, of the Kallol movement. He can be credited with nearly a hundred composition in terms of novels, short stories, and poetry and film scripts. He wrote realistically for the adult, despairingly for the romantic and hilariously for children. He is the author of the famous series on Ghanada, Mamababu and Mejokarta. While Ghanada stories are about Ghanada, a character who has either a vast experience of life or a hyperactive imagination, Mamababu studied to be a mining engineer after retirement and Mejokarta is a ghost buster. Premendra Mitra exhausts the genres of adventure, action, detection, mystery, fantasy and the unusual. It may easily be seen that many of the later creations like Tenida, Shankar and even Prof Shonku and Feluda bear shades of the characters created by Premendra Mitra. In fact, there is a novel around Pataldanga which becomes the famous locality in the Tenida stories in Narayan Gangopadhyay and indeed among Ghanada’s cohorts, there is also a character called Tenda. Shibram Chakaroborty was one of the members of the “inner circle” around who Ghanada stories were written. Bonophool uses the compactness of Premendra Mitra’s short stories to create his stories really short. Many of Satyajit Ray’s stories of the unusual show signs of heavy borrowing from Premendra Mitra. Ray’s film, Mahanagar is based out of a novel by the famous author and so is Mrinal Sen’s film Khandar based on a Premendra Mitra novel.

Through his short stories, Premendra Mitra explores the various possibilities that human subconscious brings forth, while through his novels, he explores the dynamics that are all set to change the essence of the family and human relations but it is through his children’s writings that he explores the wonder world of ants, of mad scientists and the vast world of the Andes and the Bororo tribes, the Sakhalin island off Siberia which can be crossed with a dog sledge in winters when the waters of the ocean freeze, making his readers travel vicariously all over the world. Premendra Mitra perhaps led the trend of Bengali writers taking their characters around the world through immaculate details of valleys and forests, sea and the mountains, ice and the desert and to strange humans and stranger animals. In order to be able to contextualize Premendra Mitra, we must look at the Kallol movement in greater detail.

The Kallol movement started in 1921 as a club formed by four young persons namely Gokulchandra Nag, Dineshranjan Das, Sunita Debi and Manindralal Basu. This was an adda club which also had its own magazine, by the name of Kallol, after which the movement is named. The aim of the movement was to cultivate the four arts, namely the novel, poetry, drama and crafts, the four pillars that still constitute the so called “aantel bangali” consciousness. The Kallol movement was supposedly to be a movement of the youth and in an enthusiasm to establish themselves they critiqued the Bengal Renaissance doyens like Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Iswar gupta and even Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, who wrote about the marginalized people of the periphery was also not a part of the Kallol movement. The movement critiqued the universal humanism of the classical writers; they were more interested in humans as ones who engaged in their everyday lives, struggling to keep up with the trials and tribulations of having to eke out an existence, not in the harsh geography of Tara Shankar or Bibhutibhushan, but in the city, negotiating through modern trade and industry, bargaining their way out with other human beings.

The characters and concerns of the Kallol writers were placed within the social labyrinth and not merely into their social statuses. The Kallol movement was born when a traditional society was modernizing and when new institutions, new organizations and new levels of endeavours were required of human agencies. The Kallol characters were socially constrained, economically strained and were condemned to mundanity because the world had little respect for their spirits. Kallol was the self-discovery of the Bengali middle class as a class in itself. The guiding philosophers for the Kallol were Freud and Marx, both of who spoke about relations as guiding the private and the public life of individuals rather than as humans in the cosmos. The flavor of their writings and works was realism and even postmodern because they placed the individual not merely as a spirit of the cosmos but as one who is constituted and constrained by her material conditions of existence. Borrowing heavily from modern Europe, Kallol writers in fact seem to have moved beyond them in privileging self-doubt and character inconsistency in their writings.

The movement had diverse personalities like Kazi Nazrul Islam, Achintya Kumar Sengupta, Jibananda Das and Buddhadeb Bose, and later Amiya Chakravarty. These writers were significantly different from one another and yet shared a common bond; that bond was to castigate Rabindranath Tagore. In Shesher Kobita, Tagore writes his own criticism through the character of the poet, Nibaran Chakravarty to show that Kallol’s principle reason for existence was to attack Tagore. This could have been a generation war but also a class war, the latter being more likely to be the case.

Given this backdrop, how do we place Premendra Mitra in this? We observe that he was born in 1904, Varanasi, a city in which his father was posted as an employee of the the Indian Railways. Premendra Mitra graduated from Calcutta University, worked as a research assistant to Prof Dinesh Chandra Sen for his enormous research on Bengali folk and Sanskrit texts and finally went on to study agriculture in Santiniketan. Each of the subjects he chooses is reflected in his diverse intellectual quest. He then writes novels and poetry and eventually spreads his scientific quest while writing for children. Premendra Mitra also directs films and writes scripts, as part of the crafts. In the last, namely in writing for the cinema, he seems to spearhead a trend which later writers like Saradindu Bandopadhyay and Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay followed and in fact, Aurobindo Mukherjee was the brother of the post Kallol writer, Bonophool.

Cinema is not an innocent medium, for across the world, the medium has been used by the rising middle class to proffer its specific class concerns as cultural universals. Premendra Mitra’s move towards the cinema represented the urge of the middle class to reach to the next level of media technology in order to universalize class principles. The cinema, in many ways can be said to be the culmination of the Kallol project because what was merely a matter of the urban middle class became raised into an overarching definition of what constituted the Bengali culture. Bengaliness, or Bangaliyana is still very much defined in the way Kallol defined it, leaving out the vast rural Bengal and even the pre modern Bengal out of its purview. Kallol does not merely end at defining Bengali culture but in fact makes culture as something to strive for. There are few communities in India apart from the Bengalis for who to be cultured is also a class statement and Kallol indeed made culture to be pursued in order to be counted among the elites.

Kallol was considered to be politically progressive and magazines like Uttara and Purbasha and Kalikolom, the last edited by Premendra Mitra followed suit. But Shanibarer Chithi, a journal started by Ashok Chattopadhyay opposed progressive thought by bringing in shades of conservatism into the urbane middle class Bengali readers.


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July For Julius Caesar

I have a mental block against Shakespeare; I have decided that I do not understand him. While I can approach the bard intellectually I can hardly see the point why he is so vital so as to have retained his appeal in an undiminished manner over four centuries now. What is there in his plays those which must have charged up his audiences then as well as now? Why do dialogues from his plays enter the common parlance of our speech? Why do his plays seem as relevant for the contemporary times as they did for the audiences when they were originally written and performed? My friend Runa Mukherjee has generously offered to give me some lessons in Shakespeare and it is partly through her and partly through my free course online with Prof Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University that I sit down to piece together a context which Shakespeare must have braced and graced with his genius.

I know from school that the age of Shakespeare was the age of the European Renaissance, or rebirth, a time when the Europeans reread the Greek classics and were much enthused by the vastness of thought, poetry, metaphysics, drama, history and those which presented stuff much more interesting than the boring Bible. But how did so many people get to read the Greek literature? They read all of this in their school, most probably the grammar schools, to one of which Shakespeare went. My grandfather, an educationist would always insist that the European Renaissance could not have taken place until and unless the school system was spread far and wide. And why did the schools become much commoner during the times of Shakespeare? This had something to do with the Reformation of the Church in which at least for Western Europe, the Bible was published widely and read as part of one’s devotion to Christianity. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in Germany, the hub of the Holy Roman Empire indeed helped spread literacy as well as the school system. And once the schools were set up children read the classics for those were all that was there to read.

Anyway, the Greek spirit that lingered on like a hangover in the ancient Roman Empire seemed to revive and find a new resurrected life in the 16th century Europe probably because Europe had pretty much the similar issues as of Greece and later of Rome. Conditions in England at the time of Shakespeare reflect much of the times of Athenian democracy in which powerful elites owning private property have emerged and there is a nascent rise of what one calls as the middle class, as yet not so well organized so as to pull off a French Revolution. But the propertied elites, who are cultivated by Henry VIII by the award of private lands which they are enclosing much to the chagrin of the Church, now seem to live in some kind of a limitless world, in which neither the King nor the Bishop holds absolute power over the individual. In such times, it is the intellectual leaders like Aristotle and Plato, Pliny and Cicero that hold the minds of men (and women may be) of consequence. What do these intellectuals do to minds that they matter to? Read them through and you will immediately get what we call as secular philosophy based on logic and reason in which theoretical assertions emanate from a thorough study of the concrete material and not out of metaphysical make belief. Armed with such enormous knowledge of history, logic, and a metaphysics that is rooted in its material context, the renascent consciousness can place both the King and the Church, the royal decrees and the papal dicta right in historical contexts! This kind of intellect that knows the world is also on the anvil of being able to move the world, recreate the world and eventually command it. This is perhaps the birth of what we know in sociology as the individual agency. When many individuals exercise their respective agencies, it is important to then emerge into a consensus or enter into a conflict; men of property may like to reach consensus and then build institutions so that their properties are maintained. Such institutions can only be based upon reason and logic because those are the things which have brought them together in the first place and only to keep their mutual cooperation alive they will build things that will ensure that their camaraderie remains. No wonder the institutions are attacked whenever the larger society wants to break up gangs, for institutions are nothing but a camouflage for gang behavior. Shakespearean drama is all about such institution building by bringing equally placed humans altogether on the stage whose interest congeal or clash leading to various outcomes of eventual cooperation. In comedies, there is a possibility of consensus, in tragedies where conflicts arise, there is internecine destruction for conflict cannot thrive in systems where institutions are built on the dint of reason to protect material status and private property.

No wonder then whenever I watched and even sometimes acted in Shakespearean theatre I used to get a feeling of many heads talking on stage. My idea of the drama is melodrama in which each individual represents an emotion, and the interaction among them are interactions among the emotions producing an ensemble of “ragas” or “tones”; melodrama is laid out like a music piece and our popular cinema does not merely have the song and dance; they are song and dance. But Shakespearean drama is more like a set of conversations, like arguments and discussions born into a stage, very specifically a stage that was a half-way house between the Greek arena and the private drawing room. The public sphere of the Greek theatre was given the semblance of a private space especially created to entertain guests. Around this time we have a change in the architecture of English homes of the aristocrat as well the rise of the French salon but it is only in England that the stage for the drama is invented. Hence Shakespearean plays did much of the work that the salons did, create a public sphere of discourses based on morals, reason and logic which had to be argued out and not merely believed in.

Julius Caesar is the play that I am seeking from Runa. She has observed that the play is not on Caesar but about him, how people discuss him, how people feel about him after having stabbed the guy to death. Almost all of Caesar’s close aides are in the conspiracy to kill him who incite Brutus to take the lead, Brutus being the most loved of Caesar. I cannot understand Shakespeare’s language so I buy a copy of No Fear Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Shakespearean play in printed on the left hand pages while the play rewritten in simple English appears on the pages opposite. I now see Julius Caesar just the way Cicero saw him. I know Cicero because I have recently downloaded his complete works on the Internet and reading through his piece on Caesar. Interestingly, all characters in the play bear fictional names except Cicero who is real. Shakespeare’s self-image is that of Cicero; aloof, objective, documenting things without assigning normative properties to his observations. Shakespeare chose to remain beyond partisan views and no wonder he is universal for he belongs to no particular point of view.

It seems that democracy and dictatorship representing two extremities are always in a state transition from one over to the other depending on what Marx would have called as the material forces of production. We see in the opening lines of the play, Julius Caesar that Cassius, the principal conspirator scolds the poor workmen who have come out in the streets to celebrate Caesar’s victory over Pompey. For Cassius and his ilk, conquest is a rude term, territorial expansion unnecessary; the Roman tradesman want peace and status quo so that daily life may go on and not imperialism which requires an entirely different orientation and posturing. Caesar is becoming powerful because he supports the workmen; who the “citizens” scorn. Caesar creates the mob who hail him and builds up pressure on the Senate to crown him. Did Rome not swear post Tarquin that Rome will be a republic of citizens and not an Empire ruled by the Caesar? Then Julius Caesar’s ambitions are clearly against the spirit of Rome; but there also builds up the pressures from below to be included as equally as the citizens, a pressure of the mob that the structure of the republic does not seem to be able to accommodate.

There are soothsayers and omens and bad dreams of rain of blood, graves opening up and corpses rising and lions giving birth to litter in the streets, indicating a mayhem and chaos. Despite rationality, eminent Romans seem to believe in pagan superstitions. Indeed pagan beliefs made a huge comeback across Europe with the rise of nationalism a few centuries later when the temporal power of the ruler overtook that of the Church leaving the religious needs to be satisfied by a return to pagan roots. Indeed, the French melodrama was pagan, German volk was pagan and Shakespearean motifs contained pagan elements in abundance. Paganism, nationalism, rational legal institutions a la Max Weber and secular liberalism appear to be coming together in the times of Shakespeare and Julius Caesar, the play seem to have captured these trends as part of an overall transition of the traditional society into a modern one.

Caesar’s is a closed world; here the Senators know each other and citizenship is almost a membership in a club. But Caesar, by adding territories and people from the periphery is expanding the population of Rome and this disturbs the sanctity of the exclusion of clubs. Clubs are strained and Caesar, the source of this strain has to be eliminated. Caesar is lured to his assassination by the promise of the Crown, this Crown he had refused thrice, each time more mildly than the previous one but now as Decius tells him that the Senate is all decided. When Calpurnia expresses her worries about Caesar being bathed in blood, Decius promptly inverts the interpretation by saying that actually it was a good dream that anticipates Caesar as giving his royal blood to the people. Caesar is stabbed many times, one each by his aides.

The real drama starts now after Caesar is dead; Mark Anthony emerges as one who bears Caesar in absentia and who establishes the dead Caesar as an entity to reckon with. The objective forces are changing creating a situation when Rome has to transform into an Empire from being merely a Republic; there can be no killing of Caesar for Caesar is the necessity, with Julius dead, many other Caesars will have to be born. The Senators like Cassius and Brutus, Cinna and Decius have only criticized Caesar by noting his weak physical body but Caesar can no longer be evaluated by raising old standards; it is Caesar’s mind that has made him the dictator, his strategies of creating noblemen out of soldiers, his politics of banishment on citizens who might criticize him, dramatic presentation of self instead of rational arguments, and the lust for control of territory through war and subjugation those become totally antithetical to the spirit of Rome. But Rome as a republic has lost its relevance because it now has to accommodate a much larger population, much larger territory. Hence Caesar has to live. This realization of Caesar’s necessity looms large as the guilt that each of his assassins face and which then turns into an internecine warfare and nearly all the characters die.

In the life and times of Shakespeare, Julius Caesar must have been rather relevant because only in 1649 barely a few decades after his death in 1616 that Oliver Cromwell led a revolution against the monarchy and signed the death warrant for the King, Charles I. Oliver Cromwell represents England’s intolerance for monarchy but the guilt among the assassins of Caesar may be a kind of a warning to all those who feel that the monarchy is anti-democratic and against the establishment of a republic. Shakespeare is a bard of all times precisely because each side of the story is presented clearly and with equal empathy; it is as if each person was presenting his case with his justifications and his beliefs. And then the audience becomes the judge and that’s how he gets drawn into the plays, the characters, their plots and in short into the world of Shakespeare.



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